Dr. Gideon Koren has a story to tell.
The Hospital for Sick Children pediatrician, a man with a 90-page résumé who is a leading authority on how drugs affect children, has been mostly silent while a controversy brews over anonymous poison-pen letters he wrote calling his colleague and former friend Dr. Nancy Olivieri "unethical" and a "pig."
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, his first in the long-running affair involving Dr. Olivieri, the Hospital for Sick Children and the drug she was researching for Apotex Inc., Dr. Koren gave his version of events -- including why he wrote the letters that landed him in so much hot water.
Ever since Dr. Koren disagreed with Dr. Olivieri's negative research findings on a controversial drug three years ago, he said he has been publicly defamed and vilified by her and four other doctors at the hospital who support her.
"We were told not to talk to the media ever [by the hospital] which I religiously regarded. The only way I could express myself was in those [anonymous]letters. It was inappropriate and unbecoming . . . but when you are attacked savagely by five people over three years, you may do these things."
Dr. Koren's nasty penmanship surprised a lot of people both inside and outside the hospital because of his stature and reputation as a top scientist and caring doctor.
"The day we heard the news about the letters, top scientists came into this office and cried. We cried," said an assistant who has worked at the hospital with Dr. Koren for 11 years but declined to be named. "He is irreplaceable."
In 1985, Dr. Koren founded Motherisk at the hospital, a program that counsels and cares for women who have taken drugs or other substances during pregnancy. It now receives 200 calls a day. He holds Canada's first chair in child health research, the result of a $2-million gift from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. He writes, acts and even contributes sound effects for a weekly theatre performance for patients that he started.
"How many people do you know who are outstanding scientists, outstanding clinicians and set up a theatre for children in which they regularly participate?" asked Dr. Chaim Roifman, an immunologist at the hospital and a 20-year friend of Dr. Koren's. "It is sad to see what happened."
In December, Dr. Olivieri revealed to the media she and her supporters had paid as much as $300,000 for a private investigator, a document analyst, a linguistics expert and DNA analysis to prove Dr. Koren had written five anonymous letters received between October, 1998, and May, 1999.
When he was first confronted about the letters by the hospital, Dr. Koren denied he wrote them. He also delayed a hospital investigation into the matter by not co-operating, and in one instance, fudging some facts, according to the investigator.
But then in the face of overwhelming evidence against him, he admitted he wrote them. He was temporarily suspended from the hospital and the University of Toronto, where he is a professor. He apologized to Dr. Olivieri and her close band of four supporters. He resigned three of his prestigious positions and he waited for a hearing this week that was to determine the disciplinary action the hospital and university would take against him.
But, on the day of that hearing, he read a newspaper article in which Clayton Ruby, a lawyer working for Dr. Olivieri, was quoted saying they suspected that he forged a letter that he submitted to the hospital's medical advisory committee in 1998. The letter indicated that Dr. Olivieri knew about the drug's toxic side effects earlier than she reported.
At that point, Dr. Koren decided he could no longer remain publicly silent on the controversy. Forgery is a criminal offence.
On Wednesday, the newspaper and Dr. Koren's lawyer received letters from Dr. Michael Lishner, a hematologist and oncologist and professor of medicine at Tel Aviv University's Sackler School of Medicine and author of the letter.
"I am writing to confirm that the letter was authored and signed by me on December 1998 . . . and is entirely genuine. I believe your report is a defamation of Dr. Gideon Koren and you should apologize to him," the letter to the editor of that newspaper states.
Reached in Tel Aviv yesterday, Dr. Lishner confirmed he wrote the letter. "It is a very strange affair," he said. "I totally believe in [Dr. Koren's]integrity and honesty . . . the issue of the letter is a good example of things thrown out of perspective."
At his Toronto office, Mr. Ruby was asked whether he thought he would be sued by Dr. Koren. "I hope not," he said.
Dr. Olivieri, a hematologist, and Dr. Koren, a pharmacologist and toxicologist, were collaborators in the study of deferiprone, an oral drug to treat thalassemia, a rare blood disorder of which Dr. Olivieri is a world-renowned expert.
When Dr. Olivieri discovered her patients were suffering abnormal toxicity from the drug around three years ago, she tried to publish her findings. Apotex threatened Dr. Olivieri with legal action. She published her findings anyway, but she went on to wage a very public battle with the Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto, who she said never properly supported her, and also with Dr. Koren. He disagreed with her findings.
Later, he said she did not properly inform him of the risk to patients as soon as she knew about it. That matter is being investigated by the hospital's medical advisory committee.
This week, Dr. Olivieri and her supporters submitted a thick binder of documents containing new allegations against Dr. Koren to the disciplinary hearing. The meeting was adjourned for two weeks so lawyers could examine the new documents.
Dr. Koren said he wants to stay at the Hospital for Sick Children. He said it's not just a workplace, but a way of life for him.